What You See May Not Be What You Get

Directing a film is like managing a small team. As such, it demands more than organizational skills; it requires reading people. Take it from Steven Spielberg, one of the giants of modern cinema.

“What looks subtle to the eye when I’m standing next to the camera and watching actors engaging in scene study as the cameras are turning, and what you see as the – with your eye, and you think it’s subtle, and you think it’s perfect, when you see it back on film, everything is louder and bigger than life on the screen,” said Steven Spielberg in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air

“I learned from a very early age directing television… and I made a lot of mistakes by just trusting my evaluation of performance on a set and then realizing that, oh my goodness, I let my actors all go too far. How come it’s louder on the screen when it seemed perfectly natural on the day?” Spielberg confessed that it took him “years to figure out how to modulate performances so the actors would be at a level that I was seeking.”

What to observe

The lesson to take from Spielberg is two-fold, keep a close watch on the action, but don’t trust your own eyes. You have to be willing to do your own after-action review to see if what you thought was going well was going well. Here are some suggestions that may help.

Prepare. Getting a project off the ground is like a film. First, you marshal the resources and gather the team.

Engage. Let the team do its work after you set the parameters. Then, allow them to improvise as a means of achieving better results.

Evaluate. Initial results can be encouraging, but they can be misleading. Have the guts to see that what you see first will complete the mission.

Revise. Keep an open mind so that you can work with your team to improve processes and outcomes as you go along.

Gain perspective

There is something else necessary: experience. Spielberg cut his teeth beginning at age 22, directing episodic television. He had the experience of working with first-rate actors as a young man. A lesson he learned was as talented as they were, he was the director. It was his job to put the pieces together. In short, even though he was the kid, he was the boss.

Leading a team is much the same process. You respect the talents of your people by providing them with the resources necessary to do their jobs well. And you let them do it. But you need to follow the action to make sure they are adhering to schedule and budget and giving them the freedom to do their best work. In short, it’s a balancing act. It is not something you learn from a book; you gain by studying leaders around you and then making your own choices.

“Your film is like your children,” says the German director Werner Herzog. “You might want a child with certain qualities, but you are never going to get the exact specification right. The film has a privilege to live its own life and develop its own character. To suppress this is dangerous. It is an approach that works the other way, too: sometimes the footage has amazing qualities that you did not expect.” 

The same sentiment can be applied to leadership. Those you lead can amaze you.

First posted on Smartbrief.com 12/18/2022